To succeed in HK politics, don't follow the leaders
Hong Kong's desperate scramble for the bottom of the world leadership table has reached another nadir, as the people who lead the special administrative region appear to be vying for pole position among those who believe that nothing can be learned from history.
It was, of course, Winston Churchill who famously paraphrased the philosopher George Santayana in saying that 'those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it'. Intelligent people understand this to be a warning but the special administrative region's first two leaders blithely ignored the lessons of their predecessors' failures. It may be too early to pass judgment, but it looks as though the third incumbent will be slipping effortlessly into their battered shoes.
Let's take a quick look at some of these lessons they failed to learn:
First, I'm much cleverer than the other guy and I'll be able to get away with it.
No doubt this was in the mind of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen when he stepped on one of the private jets owned by his tycoon pals. Or maybe it was in the mind of Leung Chun-ying, who cannot possibly have been unaware of the sensitivity over illegal structures but somehow thought he could get away with a clutch of them in his own home. The reality is that it gets harder and harder to get away with dubious behaviour in high office.
Second, paint all criticism as being somehow unfair.
Tung Chee-hwa spent much of his ill-fated time in office assuring anyone who would listen that everything was just fine; the only problem, he confided, was that some were out to make trouble by painting a negative picture. Tsang went a step further and tearfully told the public that he was doing his best and was reduced to despair over all the sniping aimed in his direction. It took no more than a couple of days before Leung echoed the cry against negativism, repeating the claim that things are fine and would people mind ceasing to complain. This, of course, only leads to further complaining. Even though much of the criticism may be unfair, dealing with it like a spoilt child is not how to counter adverse comment.
Third, as the going gets tough, get going.
Both Tung and Tsang increasingly disappeared from public view except in tightly controlled conditions because, when they were forced to encounter anyone other than carefully selected hand-shakers, they found themselves in trouble. Leung is still at the stage where he's prepared to reach out, but so were his predecessors after a week in office. The bottom line is that leaders who shirk from meeting the people they lead don't become invisible, they become despised.
Fourth, treat the opposition as being beyond the pale.
It is more feasible for an elected government to decline co-operation with political opponents because those who win elections have a popular mandate and have less need to compromise. An unelected government is on shaky ground, especially in Hong Kong where it faces an opposition that has won hundreds of thousands of votes. Tung and Tsang stumbled through their periods of office either ignoring opponents or engaging with them in the most perfunctory of ways. Will Leung follow?
Finally, surround yourself with sycophants.
Poor leaders almost invariably ensconce themselves inside a circle of sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. Both Tung and Tsang started out by allowing some more critical voices inside their inner circle but they were quickly frozen out as unpalatable truths dropped from their lips. Leung, too, has brought a few more independently minded people into his camp, and rather embarrassingly ditched some others he was thinking of embracing. It is human nature to be secure in your comfort zone but comfort is not a function of successful leadership - leaders who are challenged and rise to the challenge are the ones who do best.
No doubt there is a host of other lessons that could be learned. The SAR's first two leaders seemed determined to cherish failure as a way of behaving. Leung may turn out to be different, but the first indications are not promising.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur